“German, Jew, Muslim, Gay: The Life and Times of Hugo Marcus” by Marc David Baer— A Man of Many Names and Identities

Baer, Marc David. “German, Jew, Muslim, Gay: The Life and Times of Hugo Marcus”, Columbia University Press, 2020.

A Man of Many Names and Identities

Amos Lassen

Hugo Marcus (1880–1966) was a man of many names and many identities. He was born a German Jew, converted to Islam and took the name Hamid and became one of the most prominent Muslims in Germany before World War II. The Nazis renamed him Israel and sent him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp before he escaped to Switzerland. He was a gay man who never called himself gay but he fought for homosexual rights and wrote queer fiction under the pen name Hans Alienus during his decades of exile.

Writer Marc David Baer uses Marcus’s life and work to tell us about German Jewish history and anti-Semitism, Islam in Europe, Muslim-Jewish relations, and the history of the gay rights struggle. We see that Marcus created a unique synthesis of German, gay, and Muslim identity that positioned Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as his intellectual and spiritual model. Marcus’s life gives us a new perspective on sexuality and on conceptions of gay identity in the world of interwar and postwar Europe. His story is unconventional to say the least and it reveals new aspects of the interconnected histories of Jewish and Muslim individuals and communities (including Muslim responses to Nazism and Muslim experiences of the Holocaust).  Marcus is an exceptional yet little-known figure and in his book, we see, though him, the complexities of twentieth-century Europe’s religious, sexual, and cultural politics.

I am fascinated by what I read here and in fact I felt like I was reading a detective story and not a biography. Baer recreates Marcus’s life and times and it is a page turner that changes our assumptions “about Jewishness, homosexuality, Muslim-Jewish relations, orientalism, and the challenges of modernity”.

Today fluidity of identity is not surprising but Marcus’s identity crashed into the changing realities in the transition from Imperial to Republican to Nazi Germany in the early twentieth century. Hugo Marcus had a unique life and his life is a unique story. We have other accounts of gay Jews fighting their double stigmatization as well as the lives of German Jews attracted to or indeed converting to Islam during this period. The story of Hugo Marcus links complex questions of identity to institutional histories and their dislocation in the German-speaking world. His life ended in having his ashes thrown over a pauper’s grave in Bern.

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